When I heard actor Hugh Jackman played Colorado Senator Gary Hart, the charismatic reform-minded Democrat in The Front Runner, it piqued my curiosity. That said, with my history on US politics of the 1980s very rusty, a little investigative reading was in order. So what did I discover? Well, Senator Hart was considered in almost every respect the front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination until the sordid details of an extramarital affair with Hart’s girlfriend Donna Rice sidelined his campaign. In some respects Harts public humiliation was also the beginning of the tabloidisation of news media and politics.
While The Front Runner doesn’t follows every single important detail of Senator Hart’s rise and fall, it gives us instead a glimpse inside the inner circle of Hart’s intense campaign over three crucial weeks. One of the interesting aspects of the film deals with an unwritten rule that the press shouldn’t report on or meddle in the private affairs of politicians, in particular the shady behaviour of elected officials who cheat of their wives. Interestingly, Hart time and time again throughout the film points out that his private life cannot be the issue in a presidential race. Hart is in particular dumbfounded in an early scene from the film, when he is interviewed by a young Washington reporter (played by Mamoudou Athie) about his views on marriage and morality. It ultimately sets up how out of touch he is with societal values despite being such a highly intelligent person.
It’s worthy of a mention that the film highlights the time in place where womanising was once accepted in a story told by actor Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee, the chief editor of the Washington Post; where he tells his colleagues that after Kennedy died, Lyndon Johnson sat down a bunch of reporters to remind them that they were going to show him (Johnson) the same courtesy they payed Kennedy in regards to his womanising. That said, Hart some twenty years later has a hard time accepting that times have changed since then. In jest Hart throws out a challenge to reporters to follow him around on his weekends. Of course, we all know what is coming next as things play out horribly for Hart, and he is surprisingly undone by Miami Herald reporters, who followed up on a phone tip that Hart was having an affair.
While director Jason Reitman does a decent job at bringing Hart’s downfall to the screen, I’m less convinced he does justice to the film’s other story that of Hart’s suffering wife, played by Up In The Air star Vera Farmiga, who seems like a pedestrian in the story when she should really be part of our focus in determining whether Hart is a villain or hero. Moreover, lets not forget Sara Paxton, who plays Hart’s girlfriend Donna Rice. She also seems lost in the mix and comes across neither here or there. I would have liked to see more of her story too, but with the story focused squarely on Hart, it was never going to happen and that’s a shame.
But for all the performances, which are equally measured and seemingly strong across the whole ensemble, The Front Runner ultimately belongs to Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart. It’s a type of dramatic role that I like to see Jackman tackle, especially a role as far away from his success in the X-men series. In short, Jackman plays the brilliant but flawed Senator with gumption and respect, especially because Gary Hart is still alive and probably because Hart played an important role in a variety of public roles later in life during the Barack Obama era.
People will argue that it was a travesty that Hart resigned from elected office in 1987, while others will say he got what he deserved. It’s a debate that has us asking the same questions about the current crop of politicians who hold positions in high office today. All in all, I think Hart begrudgingly resigned not because he gave a shit what the public thought of him but because he refused to put his family through more pain. I believe a part of him still though refused to take responsibility for his actions. He seriously believed that although some things in public life seemed interesting, it didn’t necessarily mean it was newsworthy.